Hopes for an end to the war in Yemen are emerging after Riyadh and Tehran restore ties, but will the country’s troops have their say?
The Saudis talk to the Iranians. The Houthi rebels in Yemen talk to the Saudis. And the Yemeni government? Well, it doesn’t seem to talk to anyone.
Or at least that is the impression, as months-long negotiations between Saudi officials and the Houthis are rumored to be paying off. This idea received new impetus last week when Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore relations. Tehran has said it supports the Houthis politically, but denies sending them weapons, as Riyadh and others claimed during Yemen’s long-running war.
Details are scant about a possible deal between the Houthis – who have been fighting against the internationally recognized Yemeni government since 2014 when they took the capital Sanaa – and Saudi Arabia, which has led a military intervention in support of the government since 2015.
Some say a full Saudi withdrawal from Yemen is at stake; others raise the possibility of a new ceasefire to formalize the current relatively frozen nature of the conflict.
Be that as it may, the government and other local actors on the side of the Saudi-led coalition, including the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), point to a problem: during the latest round of negotiations, they feel they looking inward, with little influence.
Just look at recent comments from anti-Houthi figures in Yemen.
Amr al-Bidh, an STC official and the son of South Yemen’s last president, said the group’s “friends in Riyadh (had) isolated everyone”, adding that this would lead to “skepticism among friends and stakeholders” .
Another comment from al-Bidh was even more telling: “If (the negotiations between the Saudis and the Houthis) on the ceasefire… that’s fine. … But if it goes deeper and we are not part of it, then that is a concern for us.”
The STC is one of the main forces on the ground in Yemen. It is backed by the United Arab Emirates and has de facto control of the temporary capital of Aden, but it has little knowledge of what is being said behind closed doors.
The government appears to be in the same boat as an official told the Associated Press this year that he was concerned about what concessions could be made to the Houthis.
“We have no choice but to wait and see the conclusion of these negotiations,” the official said.
Powers of attorney or independent actors?
Yemeni President Rashad al-Alimi has tried to allay fears that the government will be overthrown — and possibly abandoned — by Saudi Arabia by insisting that he supports the current talks. He said they are merely paving the way for future negotiations between his government and the Houthis.
But those who see the current talks as evidence of the impotence of Yemeni anti-Houthi forces point to the murky circumstances of al-Alimi’s own ascension to the presidency, which came as a surprise in itself, with little prior indication of former president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi that he was on his way out.
Instead, Hadi resigned last April after Saudi Arabia withdrew its support for him.
However, the absence of the Yemeni government and the STC from the negotiating table should not be interpreted as a lack of agency of their own.
Often painted, along with the Houthis, as proxy forces for outside powers, each side has its own goals and interests and will not simply agree to a “final deal” that does not serve its objectives.
What appears to be subservience to outside actors is more the result of a need for that support on the battlefield – but they can still try to press on without that support.
It will therefore ultimately be necessary for all groups to be involved in the next phase of the negotiations, rather than simply being brought along to ratify a pre-agreed agreement, because it cannot be taken for granted that a Saudi withdrawal from Yemen will be a end the fighting there.